Lonely Among Us

I’m a little late on this, but the Atlantic ran a recent story arguing that all of our social networking is making us lonelier than ever. There are a few leaps of logic that are too much to me, such as the leadoff anecdote about the lonely death of Yvette Vickers. The author regards it as somehow horrifying that she died alone, unnoticed for six months and her only communications had been with old fans.

Why is that a problematic anecdote? Because it’s not like people have never died alone before. What was unique about this case was not that a woman died alone and no one noticed for a while. She was childless, not religious and most of her friends were dead. What was unique was that she was not alone; that her contacts with distant fans, however superficial, at least brought her some flitting human contact.

The article maintains an early balance, pointing out the social media mainly amplify our existing social structure and it does not appear that social media are causing the rise in loneliness. But then it goes off onto one of the most aggravating journalistic excess: the personal stream of consciousness. It mainly rehashes the same argument we have been hearing for years: social media create an artificial social image, social media are superficial, etc., etc.

The problem is that the Facebook experience she describes is atypical. There are narcissistic people out there who have a zillion friends and carefully cultivate their image. But for almost all of us, it’s a way to stay in contact with people we actually know, to dump off a quick update in the busy world to let people know what’s going on. The typical user has about 130 friends, which is close to what our brains can deal with. And they know most of them pretty well.

For many, social media are not a replacement for social contact but an intensifier of it. I mentioned last week how I used Facebook to alert everyone I knew to be gallbladder problem. In the process, I heard from several people about their own gallbladder surgeries. Maybe, in the pre-internet days, they would have called the hospital to talk to me. Maybe. But I doubt it.

Facebook allows me to send pictures to my parents and keep them up to date on their granddaughter. The last time we were in Australia, it allowed my wife to meet up with a childhood friend for the first time in decades. I have had numerous good conversations start from, “Hey, I saw what you said on Facebook yesterday.”

My political blogging fits the loneliness description more. But while it’s true that the blog and twitter feed don’t harvest close personal friends (and probably does feed some narcissism), it does give me an outlet for stuff I’d just be pacing the room and ranting about. It does, hopefully, give some of my readers something to talk about to their friends. And it allows my friends to choose whether they want to deal with my politics.

Sullivan’s readers pushed back hard on this, pointing out actual research that shows that an internet user is less isolated than a non-internet user in the same circumstance. Think of how awful it would have been for Yvette Vickers without the fleeting contact of the internet.

In the end, have heard this line of crap since the dawn of time. Every invention from the printing press to e-mail was supposed to make us a soulless society, to deprive us of real human contact. I’m sure, when man first painted figures on the walls of caves, some self-important dick was saying, “Well, this is all fine. But we’re becoming a soulless society. People don’t pantomime buffalo hunts anymore.”

But it seems, as the article argues in its more sensible paragraphs, that this is something we have chosen: to have a world that is more connected than ever even as we get lonelier for various reasons that are probably completely unrelated to internet technology. The decline in families and tight-knit communities is a loss. But we are also in world where someone is seconds away from communicating their thoughts to millions, where friendships can be forged over almost anything and where one needs never lose contact with old friends. I too am concerned about the reconfiguring of our social model. But I’m unwilling to get hysterical about it.

Humans are social animals, no matter what the misanthropy people might think. We will never move to a society where people prefer loneliness over companionship or machines over people (a few genetically self-correcting exceptions aside). I see the enthusiasm for social media as a response to loneliness, not a cause of it. And as such, it’s a good thing.

Update: More from Althouse.

The Shakespeare Project: Twelfth Night

That’s more like it.

Twelfth Night is why I started this project. I had never read it; never seen it. And it was a pure delight. As usual, the nobility in the play — the Duke, Olivia, Viola and Sebastian — are mainly background to the true comedy workings of the secondary characters. The interplay between Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Maria, Fabian, Feste and Malvolio is the highlight of this frantic play. Their interactions, particularly in the cruel plank played on Malvolio, are hilarious. A good comedy needs a straight man but Twelfth Night features two: the vain Malvolio and the idiotic Sir Andrew, both of whom are played like fiddles for the amusement of Sir Toby.

That’s not to give short shrift to the convoluted romance around Viola. The overbearing melodramatic proclamations of the Orsino and Olivia serve as a sharp contrast to the more practical behavior of the others. Today, the homoerotic aspects — Orsino in love with a boy and Olivia in love with a girl — would be played to the hilt. I’m not quite sure how it went in Shakespeare’s day, with Viola being played by a male actor (a boy pretending to be girl pretending to be a boy). But the plot is tighter than a drum, culminating in a head-spinning Act V when everything finally comes to fruition and then is resolved neatly.

As I think about it, however, my favorite character has to be Feste, the Clown. He is the most intelligent and insightful person in the play, playing his role as a fool perfectly, moving the characters with subtlety and giving the last melancholy lines. He rapidly became one of my favorite Shakespeare creations.

Next Up: The Winter’s Tale

The Shakespeare Project: The Taming of the Shrew

Wikipedia has about 745 pages on this play attempting to divine its true origin, its possible version and its possible meaning. You will rarely see people bend themselves into such amazing shapes to try to somehow exonerate the writer of a piece of literature and claim that the words on the page either aren’t his or aren’t really what he meant. The discussions continually circulate back to he old, “oh, that’s satire” excuse, even though Shakespeare is not generally that subtle.

But there’s a good reason for all this rigamarole: The Taming of the Shrew … well … isn’t good.

Oh, it has some redeeming qualities. Kate starts out as a good character. Smashing the lute over Hortensio’s head made me laugh, even thought it happened off stage (in act, almost all of the really hilarious stuff, including the wedding, happens offstage). Her initial wordplay with Petruchio is so sharp that I hoped I would go on to read more, that this would be another Beatrice and Benedick. Alas, by the end of that very scene, she is already reduced to a passive complaint woman, not even objecting to being engaged.

There is some fun dialogue when Lucentio and Hortensio are trying to woo Bianca. But that whole plot twists itself with the needless disguises, ultimately resolved in about two lines of dialogue. The character of Tranio is one of my favorites. He is probably the smartest man in the play. If there were any justice, he would have run off with Bianca.

Really, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the notions that this was a rough early draft or something that Shakespeare rushed out on deadline. There are just so many missed opportunities, so many problems, so many plot holes that I can’t believe this is what he intended to write.

Hence the contortions.

Next Up: Twelfth Night

My Belly and Me

You’ll excuse me if this isn’t up to my usual standard. I’m still feeling a bit delicate and out of it.

I knew I was in trouble when they came into my ER room with morphine.

Tuesday was going to be a heck of a day. I had a bunch of stuff at work to do and was on call for a spacecraft. Sue was coming home from her mother’s funeral in Australia and I was going to pick her up from the Harrisburg airport. So it was going to be a busy day, but I knew that if I got through it, the rest of the week would be a breeze.

And then about 2:00, my belly started hurting.

This had happened three weeks before. It had hurt so badly, in fact, I had gone into the ER. They had diagnosed a bad case of reflux and used a GI cocktail — maalox, lidocaine and belladonna — to set me right. So I chomped down some Maalox and tried to relax.

It got worse. By 6:00, I knew I was going to have to go the ER again. But I held on until 7:00, when Sue was changing planes in Chicago, so I could let her know. All our plans went out the window. I went over to our neighbors and imposed on them to look after Abby and drive me to the ER.

I thought they would give me a GI cocktail and have done with it. But then they came in and gave me some morphine for the pain. I have to say that while I respect morphine’s role in history, I don’t care for it myself. It makes the chest heavy and the mind wander. But I knew something was wrong. And then the doctor told me: he thought it was not reflux, but my gallbladder. A quick ultrasound confirmed it. And with two attacks in three weeks, I was going to have to have it out.

I had surgery the next afternoon through a laparoscope. They put four small ports on my right side and inflated my belly with CO2. They found my very diseased gallbladder, cut it out, closed off the arteries and ducts, cleaned me up and had me out in about half an hour. I have a vague recollection of being somewhat combative in recovery because I had to urinate badly and could not. I was confused and, to be frank, a little delusional. In fact, it would be a few hours before my systems recovered enough from anesthesia for me to empty my bladder of almost a liter of fluid. And it took me many hours before my mood recovered. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who get really sick and have very serious surgery. The comparatively less amount of pain and suffering in this was enough for me. Now I can understand those people who say, “Hell with this. Give me some pain meds and let me die with dignity.”

It’s now been 24 hours and I’m home. And the more I think about it, the more I am amazed with modern medicine. A couple of centuries ago, my gallbladder would probably have led me to an agonizing death. A couple of decade ago, I would have had open surgery and spent weeks recovering. Now, four cuts and a day later, I’m home and should be recovered within a week or two.

I’m also very happy about my iPhone, which became my lifeline. Thanks to the iPhone, I was able to call all my favors in, keep Sue updated on my status, e-mail my colleagues so that they would take care of Swift and even play a few games of Scrabble and let everyone know, via Facebook and Twitter, what was happening. It could have been a very lonely night in the hospital with Sue out of town and Abby with friends and the rest of my family scattered over the country. Thanks to modern communications, it wasn’t.

And I’m also grateful to the good people I’ve surrounded myself with who made sure work was covered and that Abby was taken care of. Thanks to them, nothing was dropped on the floor.

Life is good.

Quickie Linkorama

This week’s linkorama is brought to you by my insanity over the last two weeks.

  • Will even a little red meat kill you? Maybe not. But even if it did, what’s the point in living a couple of extra years if you’re hungry and miserable for the previous 70?
  • A pretty cool story about a cab ride around the world.
  • Why I love the internet: it creates heart-warming stories like this one.